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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

Stop Learning, Start Acquiring

Learning Spanish is easy. We would all have a common answer if asked how we learned our native language and that would almost unanimously be, “Just like that!” Nobody is born with skills of any kind, let alone linguistic abilities. And yet by the time we turn four, we are more than reasonably fluent in at least one language, our native tongue. All this at a time when we were yet to face the grammar-boogie at school! How come? The key is, we didn’t learn our mother tongue – we just absorbed it. We acquired it organically, gradually, steadily, in fits and starts. And we can acquire some easy Spanish in the same fashion!

The laziest way to acquire Spanish

More grammar doesn't necessarily mean more Spanish
More grammar don't necessarily mean more Spanish
Photo credit: James Bon Tempo licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Why then, must we struggle to acquire a second (or third, or fourth) language when we did none of that for the first? The most natural language acquisition tool is at everyone’s disposal and yet largely ignored. If kids can learn their native language doing nothing beyond listening for the first 2-3 years of their life, why can’t adults?

Yes, the laziest way to learn Spanish is essentially the most effective and optimal unless all you aspire is being able to greet some foreign tourists and order a cerveza (beer) in a foreign restaurant. My attempts on this blog are more relevant to those who intend to be “fluent” in Spanish, indistinguishable from the natives.

Do you know what the easiest part of learning a foreign language is? It is the acquisition of every possible resource (books, media, etc.) around the activity and browsing through the first few pages of more than a dozen grammar books and phrasebooks. Now, over to the hard part. The hardest bit is choosing the right resource to start with and then sustaining the learning process with consistency. Let’s try to sort out this problem before proceeding with our learning.

So, is grammar totally useless?

Alright, so we have already established that the most effective learning strategy for a native-like proficiency is to maximize input (listening and reading) in the target language, in this case Spanish. However, since we are no longer kids, it is extremely easy for boredom and demotivation to set in once we have received a few hours of incomprehensible input in an alien language. That’s where our conventional learning resources (grammar books and dictionaries) kick in. Note that the idea here is to learn “in context”. Traditionally, we are taught to mug up vocabulary and grammar before we even consider any application of the acquired language in a practical context. And the idea being discussed here is exactly the opposite. First, get the context and then use grammar to understand the speech in that context.

This will work only if you are learning Spanish for a test
This will work only if you are learning Spanish for a test
EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
In layman’s terms, the approach would be to focus on maximizing input in the target language first and then use dictionaries and grammar to understand the sentences and words. This way, retention would be more permanent in nature in contrast to mugging up rules and meanings. Acquire a collection of Spanish videos (movies or shows) and not more than one grammar book and one dictionary. Everything you do from here on must be single-mindedly geared toward “acquiring” Spanish and not just learning it. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, huge. Learning is what you do in a classroom where you do things like homework, mugging up, reading, writing, and recitations against your will. You do those things not because you want to be fluent in the language but because you have been asked to do them by your teacher and because you need to do them in order to pass your tests. Acquiring is different. As an infant, you didn’t have to pass any test, nor were you under any teacher’s mandate to cram up words after words off that dictionary. You just absorbed what you heard being spoken all around you, all the time. No reasoning. No analysis. Just plain and simple absorption. Word-by-word, syllable-by-syllable, and phrase-by-phrase. Until you developed the capacity and confidence to produce them for yourself after a few years of intense input. This, my friend, is acquisition and it is way more interesting, natural, and effective than dead-beat learning.

But nobody speaks Spanish around me!

Movies are an excellent source of unfettered Spanish input!
Movies are an excellent source of unfettered Spanish input!
Photo credit: Franco Folini licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
In today’s world of the ever-pervasive Internet, this excuse lo longer holds water. An entire industry spends billions of dollars every year, year after year, to ensure you get as much Spanish in your life as you are satisfied with. The showbiz. There are hundreds and thousands of Spanish language movies and television shows the showbiz industry dishes out every year. Why shouldn’t you be exploiting this perennial source of some of the most authentic Spanish to your advantage?

Maintain a strict regimen of watching the same movie or show leastwise three to four times every day. Tempting as it might get, avoid touching the dictionary or grammar reference or even turning on the subtitles while watching the video on the first day. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the visuals and try to relate the story as a dumb kid. On day two, watch the show with Spanish subtitles. Not English! Sporadically, refer to the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words and refer to the grammar book for the correct construction of certain words indicated as verbs in the dictionary. Continue with the same movie for at least a week before changing for the effect to sink in.

Sounds mundane, doesn’t it? Just be patient and hang on for a couple of months and you’ll notice subtle improvements in your comprehension. Work toward that reward and you won’t be disappointed. It is true that learning Spanish calls for discipline and patience – Spanish should be all around you at all the time! In the coming posts, we will review some innovative ways to retain the newly acquired Spanish vocabulary and grammar concepts.

Until then, wish you luck!

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